Sunday, 9 December 2012

TV PREVIEW: The Poison Tree; This World: Cuba with Simon Reeve

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 8th December 2012.

Monday, STV, 9pm

Tuesday, BBC2, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

The broadcasting equivalent of an airport page-turner, the world of ITV drama is traditionally home to psychopaths, murderers and terrorised middle-class families. Martin Clunes' son has been kidnapped by a lunatic! Sarah Lancashire is being stalked by a pervert! Trevor Eve has only gone and got himself involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse! You know, that sort of thing.

So you won't be shocked to learn that their new two-part drama, THE POISON TREE, is yet another psychological thriller in which things go from bad to worse for a troubled household of desperately unlucky sods.

Produced by STV, it stars MyAnna Buring as Karen, a woman who's spent twelve years waiting for her partner, Rex (Matthew Goode), to be released from prison. With a sentence as lengthy as that, it's obvious the Rex's crime was – to put it mildly - rather serious, and the central mystery of exactly what it was is sustained quite effectively throughout the opening episode.

Desperate to move on from this dark chapter in their lives, Karen, Rex and their teenage daughter – who thinks daddy was banged up for tax evasion – begin life anew in a remote cottage by the sea, because that's the sort of moodily atmospheric setting one requires in dramas of this nature. Alas, their hopes are dashed almost immediately, as Karen starts to receive a series of sinister phone calls and texts of the “I know what you did” variety, and their guilty secret threatens to explode.

Most of the action unfolds in extended flashbacks to 1999, when mousy Karen (who hasn't aged a day since) abruptly befriends an irritating free-spirit called Biba (yes, really) who brings her out of her shell during an evening taking fashionable '90s drug “Ecstasy”. Biba also introduces Karen to her brother and housemate Rex, and together they enjoy a bohemian lifestyle subsidised by the family's seemingly inexhaustible independent wealth.

Inevitably, it all goes horribly wrong once Biba reveals herself to be a complete fruitcake – I could've told Karen that the moment she met her – and the drugs and company she keeps grow harder and more dangerous. Her conspicuous absence from the scenes set in the present day certainly suggests that things didn't exactly pan out well for this overstated hippie stereotype.

Despite climaxing with two unlikely dramatic bombshells in rapid succession, part one suggests The Poison Tree is a perfectly serviceable, entertaining pot-boiler. Unfortunately, as is so often the way with these things, part two degenerates into unmitigated bullshit, as the already thinly-drawn characters start behaving implausibly simply to serve the mechanics of the shoddy and nonsensical plot.

Goode wanders through the production looking remarkably sanguine for a man who's just spent twelve hellish years in prison. But with such an underwritten part, there's not much else he can do. Buring fares slightly better, delivering a competent portrayal of the same character at two very different stages in her life. But The Poison Tree is ultimately a crashing waste of time. It doesn't even have a tree oozing poison in it. What a swizz.

Buenos dias!” Ah, look, it's that nice Simon Reeve, the hale and hearty travel presenter whose ability to get on famously with the peoples of the world is central to the appeal of his programmes. In his latest adventure, THIS WORLD: CUBA WITH SIMON REEVE, he investigates the sweeping economic reforms that have transformed one of the world's last Communist strongholds into a burgeoning crucible of grass roots capitalism.

With Cuba's economy in ruins, its government has been forced to cut one million public-sector jobs and – by Castro's beard! - actually encourage self-employed entrepreneurs in the hope of generating urgent tax revenues. Reeve dives enthusiastically into this brave new world of private enterprise, where he meets ordinary citizens – he was only allowed into the country if he promised not to interview any prominent political dissidents – to discuss the second most significant revolution in Cuban history.

His many new friends include a qualified doctor paid so little by the state he now moonlights as a plumbing supplies salesman; a former cheese-trader currently earning a fortune on Havana's emerging property market; and the owner of a nascent McDonald's-style fast food franchise. He also discovers that the legendary Bay of Pigs – a symbolic site central to the tenets of the revolution – is now surrounded by privately-owned guest houses.

The point of all of this, of course, is that – healthcare and arts-funding aside - Castro's system has failed dismally, and that for too long Cuba's population has been forced to endure appalling living conditions under the oppressive gaze of a totalitarian regime. But now that the iron fist is loosening its grip, for how much longer can the government square its Communist manifesto with the unstoppable influx of western consumerism?

While the overall mood is cautiously optimistic, it's constantly undermined by images of abandoned sugar mills and crumbling houses. And the fact that few of Reeves' interviewees are prepared to say anything remotely negative serves as a grim reminder of Cuba's atrocious human rights record. It's a commendably clear-eyed and revealing report

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